The Royal Fleet: Ranking All of LeBron’s Signature Sneakers

  • Nike LeBron 9


    12. LeBron 9

    Considering James won his first championship in LeBron 9s, it feels like they should be higher on this list.

    The problem is that they simply weren’t all that comfortable relative to other LeBron sneakers. The 360 Zoom Max bag from the previous two models went by the wayside in favor of a heel Max/forefoot Zoom combo that just wasn’t the same. And since designer Jason Petrie designed them asymmetrically, if you didn’t go a size up, the cramped toebox made the sneaker borderline unwearable.

    This isn’t to say the sneaker didn’t have virtues: With Nike Pro Combat-inspired materials, the LeBron 9 was a rugged sneaker, and the Elite versions ended up a vast improvement. Plus, LeBron himself really seemed to like the sneaker. But we have to start somewhere. And sandwiched between the far more comfortable Air Max LeBron 8 and LeBron X, the 9 must take a back seat.

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  • Nike Zoom LeBron V
    11. Zoom LeBron V

    The ZLV that you probably remember is the “Yankees” colorway, which LeBron immortalized by scoring 50 points in them at the Garden. Past that, the V was simply a really great on-court sneaker, lighter than the IV but offering a lockdown fit from its internal Phyposite bucket, featuring a mix of Phylon and Foamposite.

    The sneaker also featured a number of personal touches inherent to LeBron, such as maps of Akron on the sole and an ankle strap inspired by the milk carton he used to shoot on as a kid. Pretty cool stuff.

    In sum, this Ken Link creation was an on-court improvement on the heavier ZLIV, provided solid comfort, and was reasonably attractive.

    So why is it this low? Much like the ZL3, with the exception of the Yankees model, it just didn’t stand out the way the others did, though it did bless us with this classic commercial.

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  • Nike

    10. LeBron 12

    In terms of sneaker tech, it’s tough to beat the LeBron 12, which breaks new ground with its hexagonal Zoom Air cushions deployed strategically to soak up the most impact. Flywire and the Megafuse technology help the sneaker remain lightweight and provide a lockdown fit such that — unlike the 11 — LeBron has zero problem wearing it.

    “We loved the shoe so much, the 11,” LeBron said at the unveiling of the 12, “but it wasn’t performing how we wanted, the way that Nike and myself are capable of performing. We started to get on this (12 model) right away. … It’s given me great responses.”

    That said, the 12 has a few chapters yet to be written. For one, there’s not yet a particular iconic colorway to speak of — great for collectors who prefer to pay retail price for their kicks, but damaging to the shoe’s potential legacy. And though strikingly futuristic, it’s debatable how much the sneaker’s general look has resonated compared to its predecessors.

    Not to mention, as of this writing, the Cavs were under .500 as a result of James’ nagging injuries. It’s likely they turn it on down the stretch; they have too much talent not to. But it definitely remains to be seen what stories LeBron will eventually be able to tell in his 12s.

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  • Nike Zoom LeBron 3


    9. Zoom LeBron 3

    The ZL3 shared a lot of elements with the ZL2, including full-length Max Zoom — why mess with near-perfection? But designer Ken Link endeavored to improve on the rare weaknesses the first one had, creating a durable sneaker with enhanced traction.

    “It’s a shoe that a kid can pick up and play his team ball in,” Link said, “and that’s a big deal because I don’t think a lot of shoes can really withstand the rigors of that.”

    On court, LeBron had quite a few notable moments in the ZL3, averaging more than 31 points, becoming the youngest All-Star MVP and making his first postseason with the Cavs.

    So why do we have it so low? It simply didn’t hit the way the ZL2 did. LeBron’s second sneaker is an unquestioned classic on and off court, while the ZL3 is mostly an afterthought except for the most serious collectors.

    All that said, the design actually holds up pretty nicely in an era where minimalism has become a virtue in a sea of neon-colored sneakers. As such, if and when Nike begins retro-ing LeBron sneakers, perhaps the ZL3 will find a day in the sun.

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  • Nike

    8. LeBron 11

    LeBron’s 11th signature sneaker endeavored to answer the question: Will people wear a sneaker if he won’t?

    Constructed from Armorposite and Flywire to be LeBron’s lightest sneaker ever at 14.5 ounces, the LeBron 11 looked like something Iron Man might wear as part of his costume. Polarizing at first, it grew on people fast, aided by the first colorway, the eye-catching King’s Pride.

    But a cushy yet bulky Zoom Air insole presented problems for James, who is known to favor prescription orthotics. As he opted to revert to the X or play in the takedown Soldier model, the 11s momentum slowed, by coincidence or not. Sales of LeBron sneakers were still robust at $300 million, but they were static compared to the year before.

    Technologically and aesthetically, it’s tough to top the LeBron 11, and once you break them in, the narrow toebox isn’t as much of an issue. But given that even LeBron admits the sneaker somewhat missed the mark, we have no choice but to drop them a few notches.

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  • Nike Zoom LeBron VI
    7. Zoom LeBron VI

    The Six, as the LeBron VI was referred to in advertising campaigns, is easily overshadowed by the sneakers that followed. Here’s why it matters: It’s the first in the line that specifically attempted to appeal to the streetwear community, and that was at the behest of LeBron himself.

    The previous five Nike LeBrons were all solid in their own way, but they were unmistakably basketball sneakers. The Six was more than fine in that regard, with full-length Double-Stacked Zoom, but they were also a step in the direction of mainstream acceptance.

    In particular, the “Chalk” edition pays tribute to a special era of relative innocence for LeBron and Cleveland basketball. It also hearkens to this defining commercial, and this somewhat less notable one. (Remember Nicole Scherzinger?)

    Interestingly, The Six that ended up in stores was not the first version to be designed. The Zoom Power was originally intended to be LeBron’s sixth signature sneaker before a hasty rework gave us the sneaker we ended up with. The Zoom Power samples look pretty sleek, and if you have a spare five grand sitting around, you can get a closer look at them.

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  • Nike LeBron X


    6. LeBron X

    After three straight Air Max-based sneakers, the LeBron X, which featured brand new 360 visible Zoom Air, was a refreshing change. Inspired by a variety of gemstones, the X wasn’t all that visually dynamic, but it was a clean, lightweight sneaker with lots of compelling color schemes. It sold better than any of its predecessors, to the tune of about $300 million. And one advantage it has over the IX and the XI is that it’s extremely comfortable, not to mention virtually indestructible.

    Not to be overlooked: The X features perhaps the most unique LeBron sneaker of all time, the Corks. But even more than the striking materials, it’s the motivation behind the sneaker: It celebrates LeBron breaking through to win his first championship. That he wore the X to win a second title makes it all the sweeter.

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  • Nike Air Max LeBron VII


    5. Air Max LeBron VII

    Perhaps overshadowed a bit by the South Beach fever that ensued with the following model, the LeBron VII symbolized the line hitting its stride, led by first-time designer Jason Petrie. His main change was replacing Zoom Air cushioning, which had been a staple in the first six models, with a massive, cushy Air Max 360-esque bag. Petrie kept the weight of the sneaker down by using Flywire – 23 strands, to match LeBron’s jersey number.

    Petrie’s modus operandi is to prioritize function, with excellence of form resulting organically. And sure enough, though the VII is incredibly comfortable, its Air Jordan XI-esque curves ensured it would be just as attractive on the street as on the court.

    But more than anything, the VII reaches this rarefied ranking primarily for the sneaker renaissance that it set off. You might prefer the VIII, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong: Petrie himself indicated it was an improved version of the first LeBron he designed. But you don’t have the VIII – or any of the next four models – without the VII. For its subsequent importance and general excellence, No. 5 seems about right for No. VII.

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  • Nike LeBron 8


    4. LeBron 8

    How do you market a sneaker for the least popular athlete in America? Aided by perhaps the greatest Nike ad of all time, designer Jason Petrie found a way.

    Featuring three distinct iterations spread over the course of the season – the Stalk, the Chase, and the Kill – the V1 kicked things off with the most famous (infamous?) LeBron sneaker of all time, the “Pre-Heat.” Inspired by that soon-to-be-ubiquitous South Beach colorway, the LeBron line soared skyward in popularity, even as its namesake was cursed with Decision-related notoriety.

    The Flywire-rich V2 actually surpassed the V1 in terms of comfort and featured some classic models in its own right, most notably the Entourage-inspired colorway. But it’s the South Beach V1 that demonstrated though LeBron’s reputation was down and out, things were starting to move in a positive direction.

    “I’m really proud of that shoe and the work we did as a team on it,” Petrie told Sneaker News a few years ago. “Just how the colorway came to life and the whole story behind where that colorway came from and the fight we had to go through to get it out just makes it even more rewarding for those of us that worked on it.

    “I’m just happy it was a success and looking back on it now, and seeing that moment — LeBron changing teams and that shoe coming out and a celebration of Miami. It real just captures the essence of that whole thing.”

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  • Nike Air Zoom Generation


    3. Air Zoom Generation

    One of the finest LeBron commercials is “Pressure,” which foreshadows his first NBA game against the Kings. Much as LBJ rises to the occasion both in the ad and in reality, his first sneaker lived up to similar hype in its own way.

    An instant classic designed in part by the legendary Tinker Hatfield, the AZG featured clean lines and a few LeBron-specific touches, most notably chrome accents as a nod to his infamous Hummer SUV. The basic, classic look was in its own way perfect: You wouldn’t have wanted such an important sneaker to be too busy. With Nike Sphere technology in the lining, Max Air in the heel, and Zoom Air in the forefoot, the Zoom Generation was a performance model suitable for the future king of the NBA.

    “LeBron put them on, jumped up about four to five times, stopped and said, ‘These are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn,'” recalled co-designer Aaron Cooper.

    Is it any wonder even LeBron wants to see them retro?

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  • Nike Zoom LeBron II


    2. Zoom LeBron II

    What gives this the edge over its predecessor is that while the Air Zoom Generation was a great shoe, if you didn’t know better or look close enough, you’d never know it was anything other than a really sharp Nike basketball sneaker. The ZL2 demonstrated LeBron’s line would be anything but ordinary.

    The oversized strap covering a lasered upper was a perfect example of a mix of old-school sensibility with futuristic touches. There were only three GR colorways – and a host of coveted PEs – but all of them were unquestioned classics. Ballistic mesh makes the sneaker durable, while full-length Zoom Air makes them one of the best-performing LeBrons.

    Factor in the eternally cool Chamber of Fear ad campaign – soundtracked by the RZA (!) – and you have a sneaker that works on every level. It’s telling that LeBron himself still rocks them – in a manner that not everyone can pull off.

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  • Nike Zoom LeBron IV


    1. Zoom LeBron IV

    The 2006 New York release of the China and NYC LeBron IV seems in retrospect to have taken place in an entirely different era. The sneakers released on consecutive days at a pop-up shop in SoHo. To get them, you merely walked in and asked for them. No line, no ATC service, minimal line, and they custom-lasered a heavy wooden box if you bought the Chinas. Given what release days look like now, I definitely took that laid-back climate for granted.

    The IV itself was also somewhat taken for granted — though not by me. The first sneaker in three years to feature Foamposite, they were indeed a bit clunky. But once you broke them in, the IVs were actually pretty comfortable on and off court, and they were positively made of iron. In terms of historical perspective, the season LeBron wore them was the year he willed an undermanned Cavs team past the Pistons to the NBA Finals. Back then, they retailed at just $125; I have three pairs, and I wish I had three times that many.

    Full disclosure: I bought both the Chinas and NYCs to celebrate running my first marathon earlier that week. That bit of sentimentality is what puts the IVs over the top for me.

    But in my defense, that is what I believe truly makes this whole thing worthwhile. When you think about it, sneakers themselves are unremarkable in the grand scheme. It’s what we do in them, and what our lives are like when we own them, that makes them special.

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  • Nike LeBron 9
  • Nike Zoom LeBron V
  • Nike Zoom LeBron 3
  • Nike Zoom LeBron VI
  • Nike LeBron X
  • Nike Air Max LeBron VII
  • Nike LeBron 8
  • Nike Air Zoom Generation
  • Nike Zoom LeBron II
  • Nike Zoom LeBron IV

On a cold night in Trenton nearly a dozen years ago, a sellout crowd watched with a mix of exuberance and reverence as an 18-year-old LeBron James scored 52 points in a win over Westchester. It was obvious to everyone in attendance that they were witnessing the beginning of something truly special.

“This court, this basketball court,” James said after the game, “is like my house.”

Sitting on the baseline underneath one of the baskets, I had a revelation of sorts. With the future of sports manifesting itself right in front of me, I vowed that I would make the absolute most of what appeared to be a golden opportunity. I had been too young to enjoy the Michael Jordan era from the very beginning, but LeBron was a gift from the basketball gods, a tailor-made chance for someone my age to get in on the ground floor.

This extended to his sneakers, as well. I didn’t start wearing Air Jordans until the VIIs in eighth grade, but I now had the ability to chronicle LeBron’s sneaker legacy from the start. Having signed a $90 million Nike contract before he was even drafted, expectations were accordingly high, and though there’s no point comparing his sneaker resume to Jordan’s — even if we attempted that anyway — LeBron definitely has some classics under his belt.

Tasked with creating a definitive ranking of LeBron’s signature Nikes, however, one encounters a quandary: It’s impossible to consider the endeavor anything but entirely subjective.

The fact is, people often have very different opinions of the same sneakers, depending on their own purposes, preferences, and personal history. As an example, while some are drawn to the simplicity and historical significance of the Air Jordan 1, others might prefer the way-before-its-time XI, awash with patent leather. Others might even favor the Flight Plate-adorned performance monsters of recent vintage — you know, if you actually play ball.

When it comes down to it, what I present here is simply one man’s list, ostensibly to celebrate the release of the “Court Vision” LeBron 12 this Saturday at Champs Sports. But at the very least, it’s a ranking curated by someone who has followed LeBron nearly from the start, wearing his sneakers every step of the way.

Today, we’re Ranking All of LeBron’s Signature Sneakers.

BUY NOW: Nike’s LeBron sneaker collection

Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle

image via Nike